North Idaho and Eastern Washington share a grim distinction: Both have far higher rates of parents choosing not to immunize their children against childhood disease than either Idaho or Washington as a whole.
As a result, health authorities say, youngsters in the region are at increased risk for illnesses like whooping cough and measles. In early November, nine North Idaho children were diagnosed with whooping cough, also called pertussis.
“It’s a personal choice that does carry consequences, and heavy consequences for some,” said Cynthia Taggart, spokeswoman for the Panhandle Health District, which offers low-cost immunizations in all five North Idaho counties. She noted pertussis can be fatal for babies, which is part of the reason that adults who come in contact with babies are advised to get pertussis booster shots.
Tim Church, communications director for the Washington state Department of Health, said Washington ranked highest in the nation in a 2009 Centers for Disease Control study of parents who choose to exempt their children from vaccinations. “Our goal is to see those exemption rates drop in this state,” he said. “That’s a list we don’t want to be at the top of.”
Washington lawmakers passed a new law this year, which took effect in July, to try to bring down the exemption numbers. Under the new law, parents still can choose not to immunize, but only if they first consult with a health care provider and get a signed form showing they’ve been informed of the consequences.
Church said previous Washington law made it so easy for parents to get an exemption that if they forgot health forms when enrolling their children in school it was easier to sign an exemption form than go get the immunization records.
“It’ll be next fall, probably, before we have any numbers to see if it’s started to make a difference,” Church said. “We want to see more kids vaccinated. The more kids in classes that are vaccinated, the more protected all of the kids are and the community is.”
Idaho lawmakers enacted a law two years ago to expand the state’s immunization reminder system by making it automatic unless parents opt out, rather than requiring parents to elect to get reminders when kids are due for shots. Tom Shanahan, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Welfare, said there’s no information yet on whether that’s prompted more parents to get shots for their kids.
The latest figures on immunization of school-age children are from the 2010-2011 school year. They show that in Idaho, statewide, just 3.8 percent of children were exempted from immunization requirements. That’s a total of 2,550 children; among those, 2,163 were exempted by their parents for personal reasons, rather than medical or religious reasons.
In the Panhandle, however, the figure was much higher: 7.4 percent of children were exempted from immunization, nearly all by parents citing personal reasons.
In Washington, 5.8 percent of children were exempt from immunization, according to records compiled by the Washington state Department of Health, nearly all of them for personal reasons. In Spokane County, that figure was higher at 6.4 percent, but in Stevens County it was nearly triple the state average at 15.3 percent, and in Pend Oreille County, it was an even higher 15.4 percent.
Church noted that rural areas tend to have higher rates of parents choosing not to immunize their kids. “We think convenience is part of it,” he said. “When you live in those rural counties, you have further to go.”
Plus, he noted, “We know in some rural areas there’s more of a free-spirited attitude. … There are people who move to rural areas because they want to get away from regulations. … They don’t want the government to tell them what to do.”
Taggart said anti-immunization groups have been active in North Idaho. “We don’t argue with anybody,” she said. “We tell them that’s a personal choice, but that when they’re not vaccinating, they’re getting exposed and they’re exposing.”
Church said, “We obviously believe the best thing for the kids and the best thing for the health of the state is for parents to get their kids the recommended vaccines.
“Parents have the right to make these decisions, and with this new law, we just want to make sure that they’re talking to informed people, health care providers who know a lot about these issues, and getting information from them,” he said. “… Then it’s up to them to make the best decision for the health of their child.”